Clinical heterogeneity within the spinal muscular atrophies (SMA) has long been a source of confusion for questions of prognosis and genetic counselling. Comprehensive clinical and genetic analyses of 240 consecutive index cases from two English centres (The English SMA Study) have enabled some nosological questions to be resolved. The different SMA syndromes can be discriminated by (a) age at the first clinical signs of the disease, (b) pattern of muscle involvement, (c) age at death of other patients within an affected kindred, and (d) genetic evidence. Seven different SMA syndromes can be defined clinically and genetically; thirteen mutant genes are incriminated. Prevalence and incidence figures are presented. SMA type I (Werdnig-Hoffman disease) and chronic childhood SMA together comprise 74% of all SMA cases. The classification of the spinal muscular atrophies presented also provides the differential diagnosis for newly presenting cases.